The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art is staging an exhibition on the work of architect Anupama Kundoo. In an interview for the catalogue, Martha Thorne talks to her about technology, design methods and life in a utopian community

Buildings.

Best known for her work at Auroville, the utopian community in Tamil Nadu, architect Anupama Kundoo has built extensively in India and taught around the world – currently at the Fachhochschule Potsdam, while she lives in Berlin. She has a particular interest in research and experimentation in architecture that has low environmental impact and is appropriate to its socio-economic context, themes that are strongly evident in’Taking Time’, a new monographic exhibition at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (until 31 January 2021).

The show is accompanied by a catalogue (‘Anupama Kundoo: The Architect’s Studio’, Lars Müller Publishers, £41) from which the following text – an interview with architectural academic Martha Thorne – is taken.

Martha Thorne
You have been practicing architecture now for about 25 years. You have always been involved in practice, research, and teaching. Could you speak about your motivations and about how you bring these three areas together?

Anupama Kundoo
I am glad you have started with this question because for me the whole profession of architecture is about synthesis. It’s about bringing various aspects together through design. More specifically to me, it means expanding knowledge continuously. We have to bring spirit and matter together and not only think of technical concerns. We must not forget about what the soul needs, or psychological needs or human scale in additional to functional needs along with climatic needs and many others. This integration is what is embodied in design. For me, it is natural then to try to bring things together. Architecture has to do with developing the capacities to integrate. This reminds me of the words of an engineering professor, who told us that the strength of the chain (technically speaking) lies in its weakest link. So no matter how large or strong those other links are if there is one that is made of thread that will be the strength of the whole chain. So I came to the conclusion early on that if I didn’t develop in an integrated way and evolve, then I would have some strong links, but the weakest ones would decide the strength of my entire practice.

I realized that architecture is a process of continuous discovery and understanding of the construct of the world around us. I like to think of a tripod with one foot in each area – practice, research, and teaching – then there is a balanced expression. In terms of teaching, I don’t believe it is really even an activity that produces learning. Rather it is the activity that facilitates which makes learning happen. So if I wouldn’t continuously learn or if I remained in my comfort zone and rested only on one of the three legs, then I wouldn’t be of so much use. Like many four-legged tables in restaurants, you see in any three of them support for the table and it always seems that there is one that is loose because there is one redundant leg. I want to constantly grow and that is the way I feel alive.

Even if there were periods when I was only devoted to my practice, because it was research-oriented, I was able to construct the learning spaces within the practice to teach myself and to teach others. I saw that the younger generation was reaching out to me and I needed to give back. To do this, I needed to have a learning environment for myself. I therefore managed to define three spaces where I can continuously attend to that. I often say that I have a research-oriented practice and practice-oriented teaching. I always try to make my approach holistic.

Ampetheatre

Top, above: Kundoo’s Wall House, Auroville (2000

Martha Thorne
It is often difficult to have a research-oriented practice because it is something that is difficult to make economically viable. Clients are not prone to funding research. How are you able to come to grips with that?

Anupama Kundoo
Around 10 years into my practice, someone commented that my work is all about sustainability, and I was asked if my practice was “sustainable” (economically). My answer was “no.” Maybe I am idealistic, but I never thought of my profession as a source of work just to earn money. I feel we almost earn money to be able to work, as it gives meaning to my life. Of course, we all need to subsist, but money alone is not reason enough to make me do things. I also felt that the tasks in India, that I, as an architect, felt that I had to do, were so insurmountable, that nobody would pay for it. Nobody pays for urban design. Nobody would pay 106 for many other things, such as the actual building up of knowledge.

If my concern was more about money, I would probably not even have left Mumbai. I have always done bold and risky things. But again those risks made me feel alive. So even though my office doesn’t always sustain itself from jobs, I feel that being able to give that kind of time to my practice helps sustain me in my soul. And I think the money eventually comes around from wherever. When I devote a lot of time to a project, I believe I become more knowledgeable and cleverer because of it and in turn, more employable. Architecture, to really do things well, takes a lot of time. And I think time is my main resource. As a human being time is all I have, and that is one resource I am not willing to waste on things I don’t believe in. I like to contradict the notion that “time is money.” This, I believe is a mistake that came about after industrialisation.

Martha Thorne
Please explain about your work in Auroville, India, and how things have changed over time there?

Anupama Kundoo
When I first heard of Auroville, I was in the third year of my architecture studies. I used to be very active as a student and participated in a lot of extracurricular activities to complement what I was learning in school. During a summer conference, I came to know that there was a place called Auroville, which was planned as an experimental city. The founder of the city wrote a mission statement that said: Let there be a place on Earth which belongs to no nation as such, but would be there for humanity as a whole. There were radical ideas, such as in the city land could not be owned because all the problems began with ownership of things. Not possessing things is liberating. At the time, I was living in Mumbai. It was not very common at that time for a young woman to be living on her own, renting an apartment, while having parents who were living nearby. I was very self-reliant and independent and when I couldn’t afford my Mumbai bills and to live in the areas I liked without being a wage slave, I decided to move. I was thinking of continuing my studies abroad, but instead of going to the US, I thought it best to stay in India where my family was and not rush from one school to another. I thought it would be good to learn more about rural India. I was really very naïve and set off with a backpack, which was also not common, and I decided to go to this radical place called Auroville, where I knew some people, perhaps staying for a week or so. I liked the sense of adventure and freedom so much that I just stayed on. When I was there, I had limited means. I lived there for 15 years, of which the first nearly 10 were spent in a thatch hut, using my bicycle, motor bike and solar panels for all electricity. This was probably a blessing because you have to be ingenious when you don’t have a lot of resources.

Now when I look back, I think what I really liked about Auroville was that it was radically visionary. And despite everything that was difficult, it carried on. It was not envisioned to be a commune, it was planned as a collective experiment towards an ideal city involving all the nations, living together. It is an example of a holistic rethinking of everything from education to economy. My personal approach is that, instead of whining and complaining about problems, I prefer to work on a new solution directly, to be creative. I found that Auroville could be very fertile ground for me to explore solutions, instead of just complaining about the way things were. So I went there with an open mind.

Of course, there are problems in Auroville even today. There was an incredible vision for a future city 107 even though the urban aspect actually hasn’t taken off. As in many grand projects, it meets with human resistance, from inside, too. Projects like this mean that people have to change. There are many shortcomings. I can draw a parallel with a book, Animal Farm by George Orwell, and all the problems that arose in that community.

I still work towards the realisation of Auroville in whichever way I can, even though I don’t live there. The Human Resources Development Ministry of India has taken this project under its wing to facilitate this ambitious international experiment. I feel that the conditions for this “future city lab” have been enabled. There is a place for this type of initiative.

A few years after moving to Auroville, I met Roger Anger, the chief architect of Auroville, who had built extensively in Paris, and whose monograph Research on Beauty: Architecture 1953-2008, I later authored. I believe Auroville was misunderstood. People assumed it was to be like a Brasilia, and India already had Chandigarh – with formal-looking new city plans. I think Roger Anger’s master plan for Auroville was also misunderstood in the light of other events at the time. In reality, he was rethinking modernism without motorism, and that changes everything. It brings another type of mobility and street quality, as in Venice. For me, it is still one of the highest visions I have seen. I believe in the collective evolution of our profession. I don’t mind working on other architect’s projects after they have passed away. I think it is a project worthy of further work and it is a great opportunity for India.

Buildings in Auroville by Anupama Kundoo

Martha Thorne
Please talk a little about craft and traditional building methods. It seems that in the West, we have handicraft, which is at one end of the spectrum, and technology, almost divorced from the human hand, at the other. I have a feeling that perhaps in India, because of its history, culture, population, economics, there seems to be more of an integration of different techniques across the spectrum.

Anupama Kundoo
I am very excited by the future and in general, I am not nostalgic about tradition. I am more excited by the future. I would rather take references from the future that we can imagine rather than from the past. Having said that, personally, I have always been involved in making things with my hands – food, knitting, painting … I have found it both empowering and joyful. The hand is an integrating element, it is not just connected with the brain. Let me give you an example, in India, we sit on the floor and eat with our hands. Children are only taught later to use a knife and fork. Our hands are versatile, and spontaneously they can work as a spoon or a fork according to the need. The hands are somehow intelligent.

My family was uprooted from Bengal after the partition and I grew up in Mumbai, so I don’t feel nostalgic about the past. Sometimes being attached to the past is like carrying baggage and that is the part of craft that I don’t like. There is a habitual past. Even though the problem is new, out of habit people continue to make the same things in the same way.

In rural India, I was able to see that people who were not industrialised were able to solve their problems – they were very “hands-on”. This was fascinating. This was not so much about crafts they made, more about the ingenuity that humans have developed. It is more an appreciation of the hands to think rather than let the hands just go on replicating something from the past.

When I moved to a small place, I realised that it was the industrial revolution that divided this world into two camps. We needed to design the tools that would then produce things. Those who did the thinking devised the tools for the others to then produce things. This was when people became alienated from meeting their own needs. I also realised that many places undergoing rapid urbanisation, like India, had not gone through mainstream industrialisation and were having solutions imposed upon them that were causing more problems than they were solving. So, I said, “We are not industrialised, so let’s not think as if we are. What can we do here that makes sense?” When I started including craftspeople in the work, it was purely out of rational and often engineering reasons. Even though something may look similar to a traditional craft, it was a critical re-thinking of material choices and the skills. It is not so-called “vernacular”, because it is not how people traditionally built in my area. It was introduced. Of course, I have also learned from conventional methods and have implemented them, too.

I like the sentence of Charles and Ray Eames that says something like innovation is not there for its own sake. It is only necessary if we have identified genuine problems that design could solve. So that is the way I proceeded.

Martha Thorne
When you are faced with a new project or commission, how do you start? What is the process you follow?

Anupama Kundoo
First and foremost, I try to figure out what the building is for, not the typology such as hotel or house. I try to understand and to always remember that architecture has to support the nature of the life that will take place in it and only be a backdrop. So I try to find out what the life is that is supposed to occur there. I spend a lot of time understanding the physical and spatial requirements, but not neglecting the psychological needs of the person. Meanwhile, I do parallel research that starts with the place and the understanding of the available materials, skills and livelihoods of the people in that place.

I have created my own formula or my own strategy for approaching a new project. There are two things I look at: the users or those who are going to occupy the voids that I am going to design; and then a whole lot of other people, who are going to be involved through the making of the architecture. By a lot, I don’t just limit this to the masons or those who work on site, for example, but also include the people who are involved in the all related building industries, from procuring building material to the making of sophisticated infrastructural materials. On one hand, there is the life that will take place, and on the other hand, there are livelihoods that are associated with the making of the building. This involves the socioeconomic impact of the building, including what kind of skills we should be promoting, how the money can remain in the local economy, etc. So I try to apply a holistic vision. I design the material part of the architecture as well as the non-material part as a cohesive whole. In an appropriate way, I try to balance design decisions keeping in mind the life of the users with the livelihoods of the people of the place. That is the way I begin.

Model of the ‘Line of Goodwill’ Auroville megastructure in the exhibition.

Martha Thorne
Your exhibition at the Louisiana has the subtitle Taking Time. Why did you choose this subtitle? What is the importance or meaning of time in architecture?

Anupama Kundoo
There are many, many layers of meaning for me in that combination of words. The first one is that I feel that you cannot make time. People are always saying that they need to make time for this or that. We are living beings and we cannot make time, we can only take time. I prefer to be proactive. You are born with your time, so spend it well. For me, to take time is to be alive. Now that I am getting older I feel that the best thing that I have learned is to prioritise the expenditure of that precious resource – time – for the right thing.

When I graduated from architecture school, a lot of people in my generation were worried about settling into the right jobs, trying to make ends meet. Young people tried to plan what they would earn and how they would spend it or save it, and what they would do in the future. This all felt like fiction to me, because passion, self-development and service to society did not necessarily feature. I wondered why they didn’t mind doing a job eight hours a day that they didn’t like, being a wage slave, not contributing anything to society because they were not inspired, just to get some money to pay, for example, for a bad apartment. I felt people were unconsciously ready to sacrifice their deeper fulfilment and being true to their sense of purpose. For me it was important to remain true to myself and be driven by my aspiration, individually as well as collectively. If we do things for each other in a community, it doesn’t cost anything but leads to enrichment for all.

Now as we focus on sustainability, I have tried to find the central issue of where we went wrong and why we are in such a predicament. I think a place we may have gone wrong is when we started believing that time is money. We made a lot of wrong time-saving decisions to save money. We often thought that it was better to buy something instead of making it ourselves. But this was wrong. Time is life, time is not money. Time is living. If you spend your time well, you are happy. You don’t have the urge to go shopping to flee, you are more relaxed and less stressed. You can become more in tune with your body and feel better.

I am so interested in long-term thinking rather than short-term actions. In India, we seem to have an urgency to act in construction. All over the world, we seem to do things with such urgency. I have realised all the more that what we really need is time to think. We cannot cut corners. We need to take time to think first before we act. If people just go ahead and take action it’s almost always wrong. And what’s more, people are not even taking the time to reflect on incorrect actions and that creates wrong habits. So I would like to take time and have us create the right habits, which will serve us. And for that, we need to take time.

By being peacefully connected to yourself, you can produce a lot of things. I would urge people to go for ‘slow architecture’, where you don’t cut corners on thinking. Take time to build knowledge and to build community. In the end, it’s like the hare and the tortoise and slow but steady you wi